The Light Inside at MFAH, 1999. (Photo by Florian Holzherr)
Twilight Epiphany at Rice University, 2012. (Photo by Florian Holzherr)
James Turrell. (Photo by Florian Holzherr)
This past Monday night, Canadian hip-hop artist/genuine pop-star Drake released the video for “Hotline Bling,” perhaps his biggest hit since 2013’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home” or even 2011’s “The Motto,” which taught a generation of listeners the term “YOLO,” or “You Only Live Once.” (For the record, we called it a few months ago.)
The new video is a stark, Hype Williams-influenced high-definition piece of filmmaking that mostly features Drake simply dancing in different outfits by himself. But eagle-eyed viewers have probably noticed more than a few nods to noted light artist James Turrell. If the name is familiar to you, it should be: His “Twilight Epiphany” Skyspace installation is permanently installed at Rice University, and he is barely two years removed from his blockbuster exhibit “The Light Inside,” which ran at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The Light Inside is also the name of the underground tunnel that connects the Law and Beck buildings at the MFAH.
Turrell’s work is recognizable to many Houstonians, as is the work of minimalist light artists in general — Dan Flavin has a permanent exhibit at The Menil Collection. (In addition, the concept of a space being constructed to interact with daylight and artificial light is key to the Menil’s main building and the chapel of St. Basil at the University of St. Thomas.) The work of Turrell is not unappreciated by Drake himself. In 2014, Drake toured the LACMA’s Turrell retrospective while wondering how much Turrell’s “Perpetual Cell” would cost him. In a Rolling Stone profile, he even admitted that Turrell was a big influence on the visual aspect of his 2013 tour.
It is not difficult to make the case that Drake’s new video is a blatant homage to Turrell; the light artist creates disorienting but absorbing works of art using space, light, and sculpture, and Drake’s viral video (see these seemingly endless Vines and GIFs) is nothing but a stirring tribute.
And while at least two different Sean Paul videos (“I’m Still in Love With You,” from the same director, and “Gimme the Light“) could claim the easy contemporary influence on the video (especially given Drake’s public fondness for the music and style of the Caribbean), Turrell has been the topic of conversation throughout most of the music and art worlds for the past week. And because of this conversation, the 72-year-old artist has now become a part of the hip-hop and music tapestry as much as Basquiat (who worked with ’80s rapper Rammellzee) or Kanye West’s work with renowned photographer and film director Steve McQueen.
Turrell himself chimed in (through his lawyer) with:
“While I am truly flattered to learn Drake f*cks with me, I nevertheless wish to make clear that neither I nor any of my woes was involved in any way in the making of the Hotline Bling video.”